A lot of new business owners struggle to find their niche.

“Niching is so restricting.”

“I don’t want to pigeonhole myself like that.”

But what if there was another way to look at it?

What if a niche was simply a choice of where to focus?

Some common advice given in marketing circles is to “date your niche” – not to marry it.

This advice tells us to try out the niche, to give it a go. It’s not our whole life, we don’t have to do it for forever if it doesn’t work out.

But what does it really mean to date a niche?

Think about dating.

Imagine that Bobby and Sue are on a date – they are out for dinner at a local Italian ristorante on Tuesday night.

They first connected through an online dating site, and they messaged each other for a week. This is the first time they have met in person.

But Bobby has three other dates lined up this week – with Anna, Julie, and Monique.

And so does Sue – with Jim, Fred, and Andy.

Bobby and Sue are doing what we might call exploratory dating. They are casually dipping their toe in  the waters, seeing who is out there, and finding out who the other person is. They are testing out if the person is a fit for them or not, if they are worth exploring further. If not … on to the next one!

There is no kind of commitment, and they can and do happily date multiple other people at the same time.

The focus of exploratory dating is finding potential matches, sifting through options, and finding a good fit – people who might be really worth spending time with.

Rani and Pradeep, at the next table, are also on a date. They’ve been going on dates for three months now, they have both qualified each other and  like what they see – they think there may be something good here.

Pradeep has stopped dating other girls. He wants to give it a go with Rani and see how it works out. Rani feels the same way, she’s stopped dating other guys. They haven’t talked about commitment yet, and haven’t really talked explicitly about exclusivity. And they’re definitely not getting ready to get engaged. But they are starting to meet each others friends. They are starting to really get to know the other person.

We might call this tentative dating. It’s “giving it a go.” Rani is loving being around Pradeep. But if she found out he was secretly married to someone else and hadn’t told her, that he was abusive and he’s an ex-con, her feelings might change. On the other hand, when she instead finds that Pradeep is a good man, he has great friends, works hard, plays her love songs on his piano, and he writes her beautiful poetry, her feelings deepen. Similarly, Pradeep is trying out being with Rani.

Oh, and they both have checklists for what they need. Not huge lists, but Rani knows that she has two or three must-haves in a relationship for it to work for her. And Pradeep is the same, he’s learned from his last relationships and doesn’t want to repeat any previous poor choices.

On a third table, we see Ivan and Maria. Ivan and Maria have been dating for two years. They’ve really got to know each other well. They like what they see. And they’re in love. They haven’t got around to thinking about getting married yet, but it’s kind of in the thinking for somewhere a little down the road. They want to stay together. And they’ve already faced some challenges, some tough times. They’ve seen different parts of each other, the ugly side. But it doesn’t matter, because they helped each other through it, and the good outweighs the bad. They’re sticking with their choices.

Let’s call this confirmed dating.

So, what about niching?

In terms of marketing, exploratory dating represents things like:

  • Evaluating options and opportunities conceptually
  • Doing market research
  • Interviewing people who run that kind of business now, or work in that field
  • Doing some volunteer work in that field
  • Doing some small projects, for free or a low fee, to get experience, test it out, and get credibility
  • Putting up pilot products and services

Its doing things to check out a market, that are low risk and low investment – like Bobby taking Sue out for drinks or dinner.

And you can run through a checklist, to see if it’s a good fit for you.

For example, does it interest you – can you see yourself as happy if you work in that area for 5 or 10 years? Is there demand for that product or service? Do you have a competitive advantage? Is it a growing market?

Tentative dating is something more like taking a position in a market. It’s deciding to focus on one niche, to see how it works out.

It has to be a reasonable commitment to the niche, because it takes time to go deep enough, tweak the messaging, and get real traction with prospects, and then evaluate your experience.

But it’s not just for a day or two either. It’s not a one-night stand or a holiday romance.

It’s getting serious about serving the niche for 3, 6, or 12 months – long enough to give it a serious go, to see if the niche works for you both creatively and commercially.You are really giving it a go, showing up, committing, during that time.

It’s going out with the niche.

But you don’t want to just jump in casually, and commit to just any niche for three or six or twelve months.

That’s why a bit of exploratory dating, first, helps.

Although tentative dating is a bigger commitment than exploratory dating, it’s much easier to make that choice after you found your favourite in exploratory dating.

Tentative dating is what people really mean when they say “date a niche.” They mean make a commitment to it. For now. For a realistic and meaningful chunk of time … but not (yet) forever.

If all goes well, and after a while you still like the niche and it is going well for you, you can commit to it. You can then really invest in it over time. You develop more experience, more capital, as you go.

What do you think?

Let me know in the comments.

Richard Branson’s Success Strategy


Does Richard Branson have a strategy for his success?

Yes, he does.

Strategy+Business magazine summed up the strategy in 1998 like this:

“Mr. Branson has entered one business after another in which he perceived a customer set that was being underserved by a fat and complacent dominant player. Whereas most would avoid such elephantine competition as British Airways or Britain’s entire financial services industry, Mr. Branson sees a ‘bigger, softer underbelly’ that is vulnerable to attack. He calls it the “Big Bad Wolf” theory. ‘We look for the big bad wolves who are dramatically overcharging and underdelivering,’ he explains.”

Branson described his strategy to CNBC in 2017:

“I love to sort of tilt at very big companies and see if we can shake them up and keep them honest and come in with products that are a lot better than their offering,”

Branson explicitly seeks out opportunities to create a new, fun, higher value brand in markets where there were stale, overpriced incumbents, to better serve consumers.

He identifies the market opportunity, researches the  opportunity, designs and creates the brand, finds the right talent to lead the company, launches the company, and promotes the brand.

He has done this successfully for airlines, telephones, and gyms – and will all likelihood do it again in the future.

Does this strategy always work? No. It failed dramatically when Branson took on Coke with a Virgin Cola. Business Insider lists 14 Virgin brands that have fallen by the wayside.

But it works often enough, and well enough, to have made Branson a billionaire – and a global icon.

What else makes this work?

Richard Branson has some key skills that underpin his strategy.

These include that

  • Branson is a master at launching and supporting a brand with publicity, and that
  • Branson maintains a phenomenal network of smart, influential people across industries, who he can turn to when looking into new markets or opportunities.

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Was there a consistent pattern to Steve Jobs’s success?

Richard Rumelt, a strategy expert, found an answer.

Rumelt had the chance to interview Steve Jobs in 1998, after Jobs had come back to Apple and turned Apple around.

He wanted to know: what was Jobs’s strategy for turning Apple around?

“Steve, this turnaround at Apple has been impressive. But everything we know about the personal-computer business says that Apple will always have a small niche position. The network externalities are just too strong to upset the de facto “Wintel” standard.

So what are you trying to do? What’s the longer-term strategy?

He just smiled and said, ‘I am going to wait for the next big thing’ … which for him was Pixar and then, in an even bigger way, the iPod.”

If we look over Steve Jobs’s career trajectory, it was a sequence of waiting for the “next big thing” – and then riding that wave.

Jobs did it in the 1970s with the rise of the personal computer, riding that wave of opportunity by releasing and selling the Apple I in 1976 and the Apple II in 1977, and the Macintosh in 1984.

Jobs did it with the rise of digitally animated movies with Pixar.

Jobs did it again with the raise of digital music and the iPod, and then again with the rise of consumer smartphones and tablets in the 2000s.

Jobs consistently operated with the same underlying strategy – wait for the next big thing … and then ride that wave.

It didn’t always work out as well as he hoped – the Lisa and Next for example weren’t the kind of successes that Jobs had envisaged.

But it worked out well enough, often enough, to make him a billionaire and a global influencer and game changer.

Was there something else at play?